Saturday, October 31, 2015

Tributes to My Teachers:
Stephen Sondheim, teacher by example

Stephen Sondheim once remarked that making art and teaching are both attempts to share a vision of the world. In this sense, the artist Sondheim has been my teacher. 

His music and lyrics for the show A Little Night Music revised my view of the world. No production I've seen has ever lived up to the one I imagined, so probably it was a good thing that I missed my first opportunity to see the show. It was 1974, on a visit to Broadway with Atlanta's school of performing arts. The school's pianist Paul Ford invited me to see Night Music with him, but I saw a rock musical (Raisin) instead. (Read more about Paul at the end of this piece).

Later, on Paul's insistence, I bought Night Music's original cast album.  At first, I wasn't interested. I preferred loud, flashy, blatantly emotional stuff. But Night Music conjures a twilit world where love is the only concern, and where an orchestra fills the air "like perfume" (as Sondheim intended). A month later, nagged by the refrain to "A Weekend in the Country," I gave the album a second listen.
This time, I "got it." I remember the moment when I saw how everything fit together perfectly. It's in the song "Now," when the lawyer Fredrik plans a "suggestive" strategy to put his wife into an amorous mood:
In view of her penchant for something romantic,
Desade is too trenchant and Dickens too frantic
and Stendhal would ruin the plan of attack
as there isn't much blue in The Red and the Black...
In just those last two lines, there are four rhymes,a sly pun, with vocabulary that I had to open a dictionary to appreciate; and yet it all seems conversational, specifically suited to a late-Victorian Swedish lawyer who would likely have Stendhal on his bedside table. And though the musical accompaniment builds to a passionate climax here, it all grows methodically from the very first notes of the strings -- mirroring the lawyer's logical thought process. 

Seeing in an instant all that Sondheim had worked into just this portion of the song, I gave a little laugh. It was a pivotal moment for my life. I'd been a scornful atheist, but then I came to an important conclusion: there's more to life than mere matter. Evolution alone could not explain Sondheim's imagination, or the drive to work out so thoroughly the small wonderful details of that one song, or even the impulse to create such a perfect piece of music, words, and theatre. Nor could Darwin explain the pleasure I got from apprehending it all. Listening to the Night Music recording, I concluded that there must be a Creator, and Sondheim's art is a glimpse of the Creator's image.

From then on, I followed strands from Sondheim outward to other interests. Recordings of his music by Cleo Laine and Bobby Short led me into jazz (thanks to tips from my chorus teacher Frank Boggs) and, from there, the great American songbook of standards. Composers compared to Sondheim brought me to Bernstein, Ravel, Reich, Janacek, Britten; and each of those pointed me to others, until I appreciated centuries of music. His artistry with words set a standard as I learned to appreciate Shakespeare, Beckett, Stoppard, and Updike. I studied music composition. The stories that I wrote for my Master's degree in Professional Writing connect to his art.

Sondheim taught me directly once, as my college counselor. On another tip from Frank Boggs, I wrote Sondheim a letter asking for guidance about selecting a college. In my letter, I quoted an interview in which his mother said that young Steve always wanted to write words, compose music, and perform: "He wanted to be Noel Coward." I told him I was the same way, that I wanted to be him, and I asked for his advice. 

Sondheim responded that, first, it was his mother who probably wanted to be Noel Coward. Beyond that, he said to skip music appreciation, because even a little knowledge of music theory would do more for me than any course in listening (an insight that proved true, and that I use to guide me when I teach music to children). A year later, I wrote him again, asking if my friends and I could meet him during a brief stay in New York. He's had a few more notes from me in the decades since then, as when I heard the recording of Sunday in the Park with George, and I've always received a kind reply.

Every angle of my inner life converges on the moment that I "got" A Little Night Music. Writing music for theatre and for worship; helping students to create art and to apprehend history with an artist's imagination: what else do I ever think about? what are all my daydreams? how do I spend my free time? It all meets in the work of Stephen Sondheim.  (See my Sondheim page.)
Paul Ford soon left Atlanta for New York, where he quickly became the pianist of choice for Broadway shows. Looking up from the pit orchestra of Into the Woods in 1987, he recognized me and warmed up with a song I'd done with him in ninth grade. Sondheim's Assassins originally played with just synthesizer, drums, and Paul at the piano. He's currently touring the country as accompanist/arranger for Mandy Patinkin's recital of Sondheim songs.

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